Sunday, April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 150
1 John 4:1-11 [12-21]
John 15:1-8

If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.

Someone suggested that I read the book “Sarem” by Edward Rutherford when we were getting ready to move to England. It is a story about the building of the cathedral in Salisbury. It is fiction, but the history is basically true as I learned through the people we met and places we visited during our time in country. I loved imagining the people who helped to build the beautiful cathedrals and strong fortresses that we saw on our adventures. I found myself thinking about their struggles and joys, their faith and their hope.

We visited Salisbury Cathedral several times during our four year tour. Unfortunately, the cathedral was being renovated and there was always scaffolding somewhere inside and outside. I was disappointed because I could never get the perfect picture, but I realized that the building was more than seven hundred years old and it would take continuous maintenance for it to last another seven hundred.

There are those who say that we spend entirely too much time and money on the buildings where we worship God. After all, God does not live within those walls; we can worship Him everywhere. This is true, but God does not discourage us from making our worship space beautiful. Have you ever read the descriptions of the Tabernacle and the Temples? God gifted and called the artisans who created those spaces. The curtains were finely woven fabrics. The poles were covered with fine medals. The amount of gold used was extraordinary. Even the candlesticks were intricately designed. The materials were collected from around the world. The design had a purpose, the symbolism meant something.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus said “I am the true vine.” He was standing in the shadow of the Temple which was decorated with a large gold decoration of a grapevine. The symbolism is obvious, as the scriptures often describe Israel in terms of vineyards and grapes. The golden vine was so large that some of the grapes were as large as a human head. It was created from donations from God’s people. The gold was even engraved with donors’ names, much like we put names on bricks for sidewalks or park benches. It was beautiful, but it also had a purpose: the grapevine represented the relationship between God and His people, but the people were often too focused on the symbol that they lost touch with the relationship.

Jesus reminded the people that He is the true vine; He is the One through whom faith and fruit comes. “Look to me, abide in me, and bear fruit.” Unfortunately, we often spend so much time looking outward, away from God, focusing on our fruit that we lose touch with Jesus. We can’t bear fruit without Jesus; we can’t bear fruit without faith. It is not wrong to spend time and resources on the buildings where we worship, but it is possible to make those things our gods. It is possible to put so much attention in the symbols that we ignore the true.

It is even possible to give so much attention to our ministry that we forget the one who has called us to it.

The story of Philip shows us how to respond to God’s call, no matter what it means to our ministry. He was a successful evangelist; he was one of the deacons chosen in Acts 6. We hear more in Acts 8, “Therefore those who were scattered abroad went around preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. The multitudes listened with one accord to the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many of those who had them. They came out, crying with a loud voice. Many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. There was great joy in that city.”

Philip wasn’t one of the twelve, but that didn’t stop him from doing the work of the kingdom. He was gifted and sent; it appears that he was succeeding. The people were experiencing the joy of the Lord, watching Philip do incredible things. He was healing and casting out demons and they believed what Philip had to say because of the work he was doing.

This is terrific. I’m sure most pastors and evangelists out there would give their lives for a congregation willing to listen to everything they have to say. They would be very happy to have such a success in ministry. But at the height of his ministry, an angel whispered in Philip’s ear: “Go now.” “Now?” we would ask. “But I’m just beginning here. There is too much work left to do. There are too many people left to save!” We might even reject the voice, claiming that it is the devil trying to confuse us and make us lose our place in God’s work.

That’s not the way Philip responded to this call; Philip “arose and went.” He was so confident in the word of God that he willingly left a successful ministry to go into the unknown. It was not only an uncertain command, but it was dangerous. The road from Jerusalem to Gaza was infested with killers and thieves. It was not a place where one would wander alone. The Ethiopian eunuch was certainly not alone. He was probably accompanied by a large entourage, including soldiers, servants and guests. He was representing the queen of Ethiopia, so he had the resources of a kingdom at his disposal.

As Philip was walking down this road, he heard the voice again, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot.” Again, we think, “Are you kidding me? Those soldiers don’t look like they would welcome my presence so near to the official.” I surely would not run toward the group but Philip did. He noticed that the eunuch was reading from the book of Isaiah. This was not a chance encounter: God ordained this moment so that Philip could share the Gospel with another corner of the world. While we might have had doubts that the voice was really from God, but it was obvious that Philip had work to do. That Ethiopian community needed to hear the Gospel message, too.

Philip asked, “Do you know what it means?” The Ethiopian admitted that it didn’t make sense, so Philip joined him in the chariot and told him the story of Jesus. The eunuch was so transformed that he asked to be baptized. They stopped the caravan by a puddle at the side of the road and Philip welcomed him into the kingdom of God. Philip immediately disappeared as the Holy Spirit whisked him off to another mission and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

From this story we learn several things. First of all, we learn that we might be called out of a successful mission into the unknown to do something that seems dangerous and ridiculous. We also learn that what seems like an insignificant moment or ministry (to one person) might have an incredibly large impact on the world (as is now seen in the faithful Christian community in Ethiopia.) Finally, we learn that we should be ready for anything. Could you explain Isaiah 53 to a stranger in a chariot if God called you into that mission? God is with us when He takes us into the world to preach the Gospel, but we should actively study the scriptures so that we will be confidently ready with an answer whenever we are called to give one. Philip was connected to the true vine. He knew when he heard the whisper that it was God calling him to the work. Are we so certain?

I don’t have a green thumb. As a matter of fact, I can barely keep a plant alive. Anything I buy usually looks pretty for a few days or weeks, but it doesn’t take very long before they are dead in the dirt. So, I’m no expert. I know that there are people who do wonderful things with plants, not only professionals but also people who create magnificent gardens. They know what to do to make the plants grow up healthy and strong. Some plants need a lot of water, some need special plant food. Some need a lot of light; others need a nice cool shady spot. Special care needs to be taken on plants that are vulnerable to pests. A good gardener knows just what to do to deal with all those problems. The best I can do is to enjoy their gardens and shake my head in awe over the incredible things they can do with plants.

There is a process in gardening called grafting that is absolutely fascinating. The gardener connects one type of branch with another type of root, making the whole plant healthier and stronger. In one type of grafting, the gardener takes the roots of a plant that does well in certain soil conditions and splices to it a plant that generally does not do well in that environment. For example, a gardener might take the roots of a drought resistant plant and add the stem of one that needs more moisture. The roots of the plant will become strong and healthy despite the lack of water, while the branches will grow to be beautiful. Other grafting can be done to combine varieties of fruit on one tree. Grafting can provide pollinizers within one tree, such as grafting a male and a female holly bush together. It can used to repair damage, create a dwarf plant or to make it easier to propagate.

The people in Jesus’ day were not agricultural experts, but they were familiar with the language of gardening. Grafting has been around for millennia; the Chinese did it thousands of years ago. The Romans used the technique and it was commonplace for the Greeks. They would have heard the words in John’s gospel and would have understood the idea of grafting. We are grafted into Jesus, He is the root. We are the branches. With Him as the root, we are stronger and more resistant to the dangers of this world. We grow beautiful because of what Jesus gives to us. We are joined together into one plant. Even though we are different and we produce different fruit, the fruit is good because it comes from the good vine. Bonded together in this way, we also encourage one another to healthy growth. As part of the new plant we find healing and strength.

I came up with that information about grafting by googling the term on the Internet. It is amazing what you can learn with just a few key strokes and the click of a button. The Internet has also made this a very small world. We can keep in touch with people regularly, through email or through networking sites like Facebook. We are able to see what’s happening all over the world instantaneously.

Unfortunately, the amount of information on the Internet also means that we have to be careful what we believe. I spend a lot of time in Bible study. I’m constantly researching for my art, writing and teaching. I don’t just read the Bible, although it is my first source. I also look into commentaries and other writings for ideas and information. I spend too much time surfing the Internet, searching for definitions, histories and photos so that I can understand what is happening in the text. I have to discern whether every article is true and of value before I use the information in my work. It is necessary to remain in Christ so that I don’t follow a false path or teacher.

We have an advantage over Philip because we have two thousand years of the history of the church behind us. We have the writings of the Apostles, the Gospel stories and the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John. We have the writings of the early Church fathers who knew the Apostles or were only a generation or two away from them. Their writing has been tested for millennia, and their understanding has developed into the basic beliefs of the church today. The most important points were written into the historic creeds and the faithful have built on that foundation of the Christian Church.

We have to be careful when we are relying on other people’s thoughts and interpretations. John reminds us that we should not believe every spirit. There are many false prophets and have been from the beginning of time. The fact that we have “lost Gospels,” which were writings from the early days of the Church that tell us a different story, testifies to that fact. People still read and believe those writings because they hear words that tickle their ears and satisfy their desires. There were competing understandings of Jesus even in those early days, but those writings were rejected by the Church for many reasons. There are still many false teachers selling a Gospel that does not fit the Biblical witness of faith.

We have to be careful about listening to the wrong spirits, but we also have to be wary of our own understanding. We can be easily swayed by our own life experiences. We are selfish and self-centered. We are sinners. We interpret God’s Word to benefit our own desires. We often twist the scriptures to justify our biases and points of view. We can be swayed by every thought, inward and outward, and if we are not abiding in God, those thoughts can come from the spirit of the antichrist.

Jesus is the true vine and we have no need to fear living and working in this world because God will be with us through the good and the bad when we abide in Him. Even when we experience difficult times, we can be at peace knowing that in the end God will use it all for His glory. He calls and sends us out into the world, sometimes He sends us outside our comfort zone into unknown experiences. He will not throw us on the heap to wither and be burned when we keep our focus on Him. He will produce the kind of fruit that makes a difference in the world. Who knows, we might just be the one to explain the scriptures to a stranger on the road, sending them off with joy in their heart.

The word translated “remain” in the verse from John’s Gospel is the Greek word “meinete” and it can also mean “to stay,” “to be permanent,” or “to abide.” “To abide” means “to remain stable or in a fixed state.” Do we abide in Christ, or are we just living? Perhaps the difference between living and abiding is insignificant, but I wonder how our life of Christ would change if we made a conscience effort to abide in Him rather than just live. In this world change is not only acceptable, it is inevitable. I’ve known too many people who got married with the understanding that if it doesn’t work out they can just get a divorce. People don’t stay in a single job for forty years anymore; they get jobs on their way to the next job which will lead to the next job. Thirty years ago the cars were made so well that we could keep it, and drive it for decades. There are those who say that even the scriptures have changed over time, that God has changed. We live, but do we abide in anything anymore?

Even our church lives can be transient and changing. Few of us belong to the church where we were baptized. We often leave because we’ve moved too far away, but we also leave because we have been hurt or we don’t agree with policies or practices. Many people jump from one type of church to another, hoping to find the perfect one. Few people are committed to a particular set of doctrinal teachings, choosing a church for programs rather than theology. Some even mix religious ideas, picking and choosing what they like about different religions, creating an eclectic faith that isn’t recognizable in any religious institution. Are we abiding in Christ if we are blown by every wind of belief?

It isn’t easy being a Christian. It isn’t easy abiding in God. The demands He makes on our lives can be difficult. We might, like Philip, be called from a successful ministry into the unknown. We might have to walk a dangerous path. We might have to do crazy things. The key is to remain in the vine.

Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” He calls us to abide in Him. This doesn’t mean checking in once in awhile with a quick prayer or a rushed worship service. It means living in Him, being with Him all the time, taking Him with us when we go out into the world. It means committing our lives to constantly learning and growing in faith and knowledge of His grace. It means knowing that we will be safe in God’s care no matter where we are or what we face. And when we do this, when we dwell in Him always, we will bear good fruit because He will shine in and through us into the world. Let us always remember that our home is with God wherever we might be, and we dwell in Him through faith and love.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page